When modernity and tradition clash in Asia: Singapore’s colonial sodomy laws upheld again

The Old Supreme Court Building, built from 1926 to 1929 in the style of classical architecture in the former British colony.

After a meeting behind closed doors and going against the general trend in the Western world, Singapore’s High Court on March 28th, 2020 again upheld a rarely used law, introduced in 1938 under British colonial rule, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail for sex between men, but doesn’t apply to lesbians. A first challenge to the law, deemed unconstitutional by its opponents, was dismissed in 2014.

Singapore, the Asian city state with nowadays 6.2 million inhabitants of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent, as well as many Western residents, looks modern and vibrant on the surface. Nevertheless, it remains deeply conservative at heart and seems not ready for such radical social change. A related official statement said that “Legislation remains important in reflecting public sentiment and beliefs”, adding that non-enforcement of the law against consensual male homosexual activity in private did not make it redundant”. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, oldest son of founding father Lee Kwan Yu, previously pointed out that society in Singapore “is not that liberal on these matters.”

That doesn’t mean that Singaporeans are homophobic in general: since 2009, each June there is a Pink Dot gay pride parade and a 2019 survey showed distinct shifts on issues surrounding homosexual rights, particularly among those aged 18-25. On the other hand, since 2016 Singapore has banned foreign entities like Goldman Sachs, Google and Facebook from sponsoring the happening. According to the new policy announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs, «Foreigners are not allowed to organize or speak at the events, or participate in demonstrations». It also observed that «These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide» for themselves.

Consensual same-sex behavior isn’t criminalized in Hong Kong, Japan or Taiwan, where lawmakers in May 2019 legalized same-sex marriage, making the island the first place in Asia to do so. In 2018, India’s Supreme Court also had decriminalized gay sex.

Brunei, a small, but rich Muslim-majority country with a population of just 465,000 people located on the northern corner of the island of Borneo, which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia, took indeed a quite different approach: on April 3rd 2019 the former British protectorate announced new Sharia laws that would have made gay sex and adultery punishable with death by stoning, and theft with amputation.

It was last quickly forced to back down, after an international outcry and companies including JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank banning their staff from staying at Bruneian-owned hotels, a measure backed by actor George Clooney and singer Elton John, as well as travel agents, London’s transport network and finance houses cutting businesses ties.

More than 50,000 people signed a petition calling on Oxford University to rescind an honorary degree of civil law awarded in 1993 to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 73, prime minister of the oil-rich nation, where the sale of alcohol remains banned. After Queen Elizabeth II, he is the world’s second longest-reigning monarch, and with a net worth of 20 billion US-Dollars, one of the richest man in the world. Money and openness not necessarily go together!


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